September 16, 2002
Better Sportswear

A few weeks ago I was "shopping" at Nieman-Marcus. Or, more accurately, I was "prowling." I don't usually go to the upper floors, because I don't usually buy couture, so I was feeling a bit like a fraud among the Calvin Kleins. Hence the prowling--creeping from one side to the other, fingering fabrics and glancing at price tags.

Stopping in front of some nice black DKNY blazers, I felt a little less exposed. And, strangely, I began to notice that I was surrounded by the smell of my Grandma's perfume. I looked around me, but there was no one on the other side of the rack or in the dressing room. Just me and the same smell that wafts out of the doors of her cabinet, which now stands in our living room.

I kept looking at the blazers and trying to decide if I would ever even use such a thing. And suddenly I heard my Grandmother's voice, clear and commanding as a bell: "Go on, honey. Try it on for Grandma."

And so I did, thinking as I did so about the days when "going to Grandma's" meant visiting her on the job, in a department store in downtown Columbus.

Grandma ruled the roost in Better Sportswear, whatever that means. Whenever my mother (and later, whenever I) stopped in, she always had something set aside for us, a solid middlebrow label like Jones New York or Chaus or Pendleton. Grandma appointed herself our own personal shopper--and, even better, she had a discount.

When I was little, I thought her life was very glamorous. She wore put-together suits and separates and she had colorful costume jewelery, glittering beaded necklaces and brooches and pins. (I loved the necklace of tiny pink beads, but I never found it.) To add to the glamour, she took great vacations, traveling to Europe and Alaska, sending letters via air mail and bringing back presents for everyone. I've been wearing the carved turquoise ring she brought back from Alaska every day since 1981.

She worked at the store for more than 20 years, so this ritual continued until I went away to college. It wasn't always easy--those days after Christmas and Thanksgiving couldn't have been fun. She didn't have a car, so there was always a bus ride there and back again to deal with. And she was always accidentally slamming her fingers in the cash register, turning her fingernails black and blue.

Alas, the blazer wasn't going to do. It had this sort of floppy tail at the back. And so I hung it back up, and the smell of perfume seemed to dissipate, and I kept moving.

Grandma died in 1995. My mom and I miss her. In the intervening years, on our post-Thanksgiving shopping trips, we always made a detour to visit the Better Sportswear department, if only to remind ourselves what it was like when she was there.

So do I think she's still following me around, vicariously shopping at my side? The journalist in me, who marshals facts and evidence, says Of course not. Ridiculous. But the dreamer--and the shopper--in me shrugs and says Who knows? Eternity is a long time not to go shopping.

The irony is, of course, those days in Better Sportswear trained me to be a shopper extraordinaire. I don't need anyone, living or dead, to tell me to check for linings and buttonholes and all those pointers of quality. To tell me a blazer with a floppy fishtail is going to look dated in six months, or possibly tomorrow. Grandma trained me well. If there's anything I need advice from the afterlife on, it isn't spotting a bargain.

It would be much more practical to get some advice about, say, the car. If my tires are six years old but I only drive once a week, do I need to replace them? There's an eternal worry right there.

But Grandma never had a car.

So if I run into her again, it will probably be in a department store somewhere, where for me, commerce will always mingle with memory.

Posted at September 16, 2002 06:14 PM

Wow. That was a really wonderful essay.

You just made my morning.

Posted by: brian on September 17, 2002 10:14 AM

Gee, thanks!

It seems to be "meditations on loss" week. Check out my friend Mike's writings at for a more visceral take on death and family.

Posted by: Anne on September 17, 2002 12:01 PM

uh, I think your'e right about the thematic dictation of the week, Anne.

The entry prior to this? With the NWA citation in the title? Were you consciously considering the next line in the couplet?

Posted by: Mike on September 19, 2002 03:56 AM


You mean "Today I didn't even have to use my AK?"

Posted by: Anne on September 19, 2002 05:18 PM

"nobody that I know got killed today"

been a while since I heard it, maybe my placement is off.

Posted by: Mike on September 19, 2002 07:40 PM

Ditto the previous post (well, except this didn't make my morning, 'cause it's nighttime).

It was really nice to read this.

Posted by: Laurie on September 19, 2002 10:42 PM

oops...I was referring to the initial, rather than the previous, prob'ly figured that out, though :).

Posted by: Laurie on September 19, 2002 10:44 PM

Thanks. I actually held off writing it for several weeks, because I thought it sounded nuts. Had to process for a while, I guess.

Posted by: Anne on September 20, 2002 09:20 AM

Nuts? Mmm-mmm. No. It's great. It put me in mind of a very specific time and place. It must have felt really strange for you and your mom to have gone to that store after your grandma was gone, when she was such a constant presence there.

I love how you described her glamour. I remember being in awe of the old ladies I saw in church and out shopping when I was young. There was one lady in our neighborhood who always had the finest plastic and polyester ensembles, in wild colors and patterns, with the coordinating beads just dripping from her earlobes and neckline. She was a fearless dresser. To this day, I try to emulate her style in my own fashion choices That is, when I'm not being lazy and wearing all black.

Your grandma sounds like she was one sharp lady.

Posted by: Laurie on September 20, 2002 11:04 AM
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